It can't be stressed enough: it takes a 40 minute effort to beat Kentucky. Even when both teams were sloppy for most of the first half (double digit turnovers in the first twenty minutes for both teams), the Vols should've known, and we should've learned this lesson when they erased a 19 point lead in Knoxville: you have to play with poise the entire game, and you absolutely cannot have gaps in scoring. And today, Tennessee flatlined on more than one occasion.
In the first half, the Vols hit the wall twice: no made shots between a Wayne Chism layup at 16:28 and a Scotty Hopson three at 11:56. Sloppy play meant that dry spell didn't kill the Vols, who came out of it down only two points after Hopson's three. But the next two droughts the Cats were more than happy to take advantage of.
Tennessee scored their final points of the first half with 6:12 on the clock. That won't beat anybody, especially UK. The Cats went on a 9-0 run in those last six minutes to build a 32-19 lead at the break. 19 points in the first half won't beat anybody, though not everybody will play defense as well as Kentucky did today, and they should be commended for that.
Still, Tennessee was game enough to stay in the fight, and get back within six, at 45-39, with 9:32 to play. But then the Vols went almost five minutes without a made shot...and by the time Kenny Hall dunked one, the Cats had run away, up 17 points.
That particular run was sparked by the death of the horse we rode in on: play zone, and take your chances with Kentucky's three point shooting. We've mentioned before that Kentucky gets really good looks more often than not, because of the presence of DeMarcus Cousins and the penetration ability of John Wall. And in this particular run, the Cats got good looks, took four of them, and hit three. Eric Bledsoe and Darnell Dodson put the game away, and Bledsoe in particular was really great, hitting 5 of 8 threes. We said we'd let them take their chances, that was the gameplan that we thought gave us the best chance to win...and today, Kentucky's shooters busted it up. Credit those guys...and if they shoot 8 of 20 (not counting two misses once benches were cleared) or even come close to approaching 40% in the NCAA Tournament, they'll beat anybody they see.
From there, things got a little out of hand, in more ways than one. I hate losing to Kentucky, and I especially hate it in a game like today, where a win would've been so monumental for us in this rivalry. This game, like the first one in Rupp Arena, was a battle for 30 minutes, and then UK pulled away...and when they're hitting their threes, they can really pull away. So what felt like a battle turned into the worst loss of Pearl's Tennessee career, and I hate that too.
But as we know, Kentucky is very good and the most talented team I've seen all year - they deserve credit for the win and the defense they played that held Tennessee to 45 points and 30.9% from the field. And since this is the SEC Tournament, this loss immediately becomes about anything we can learn from it that'll help us in the NCAA Tournament.
It's all still guesswork, but a 29 point loss, even to Kentucky, isn't going to help our seeding. Tennessee should still be in the 4/5 group, but neither would surprise me after today. I'm more concerned about whether or not this loss is going to affect Tennessee's confidence: we were playing really well and had won five straight before today, and though the Vols will still know that they can beat the likes of Kansas and Kentucky, a beatdown like this is a new experience for this team (without Tyler Smith, who was around for the USC game).
Whether you burn the tape, I don't know...but it's Pearl's job to pull this team back together and make sure it still knows that it's capable of beating anyone it plays. He's done a good job after disappointing SEC Tournament losses before, I trust him to have us ready for Thursday or Friday.
The good news is, we won't be seeing a team as good as the one we played today until at least the Sweet 16. The Vols must come off the deck from their worst loss of the season to play their best basketball. Once that bracket goes up, I think this one will be forgotten and we'll go about our business.
We took a beating today. But the story isn't over. Our chance to write its most important chapter begins now.